Symbols: since the dawning of human society, we have used symbols to convey thoughts, ideas and concepts. We have developed a whole system by which we can pass on ideas and information from person to person, from generation to generation: spoken language where complex patterns of sounds recreate the stories and emotions of our daily lives, the written word where lines and squiggles are phonic representations and signals of rhythm and inflection. We humans have filled our universe with the echoes of our history, our knowledge, our emotions, our joys, our pain, our hate and our love; from sounds fading into the ether to our graffiti marks in the hard surfaces of our environment or on leaflets of skin and cellulose. But still the greatest and most powerful, and often the simplest, of all human symbols is the image. Whether it is a handprint on the wall of a subterranean cavern to say “I was here”, or an emoticon of a smiling face, recognition is immediate and the attached emotions are clear and powerful.
For Christians, the most powerful of all symbols is a simple set of two lines intersected to form a cross. Simple, elegant in design and filled with emotion; one simple icon that conveys more in a single flash of viewing than has been scribbled in 2000 years; or is it? During his homily for the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, the Arch Bishop talked about a new offshoot of Christian teaching in which the cross is stripped of much of its power and is relegated to nothing more than a barbaric symbol of execution; no more fulfilling of prophecy, no more sacrificial lamb of salvation, no more looking to the cross, being healed and given life- just a symbol of meaningless death and the potential death of a symbol.
Needless to say I was appalled and my mind filled with screams of “what about” this or that; for a moment I felt like Peter staring at Jesus after hearing one of His parables. Once the dust settled it was time to contemplate, to stare at the cross and ask “ok, so why should you be so important to a Christian, why should you be so venerated, why should you be such a powerful symbol of our faith?”
Our journey begins with the Old Testament reading for the feast. A typical Moses in the wilderness story, God is leading the Israelites to the promised land, Moses is co piloting, the masses are in the proverbial back seat whining “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, she’s touching me, it’s hot, are we there yet, when are we gonna get there?” God the Father gets mad, sends some venomous snakes, cleans house and then tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole and if anyone gets bitten, they are to look at the serpent and live. Seemingly another old story which doesn’t really fit anywhere so let’s just attached to one of the Sundays and hope no one notices. But is it really just that? Instant message from God: “ Think Symbols”.
This recount of the journey of the Israelites is more than just a simple story if you think in terms of the symbolic. We have the people of God wandering the desert looking for the Promised Land, the Eden here on earth where the people and God live in harmony. This is a straight forward enough analogy of our daily spiritual journey where each of us seeks to be closer to God and find the joy and freedom from our transgressions. There is Moses, God’s man on Earth, trying to teach and lead God’s people to this Earthly Eden, a man with power and knowledge who is often at his wits end on what to do with this stubborn flock of well meaning but unruly sheep. Then there are the serpents, a symbol for yetzer ha-ra,, the Hebrew version of Satan, the provocateur sent by God, but unlike the modern Christian view of Satan, this is a minion under God’s control, it is the ambition in each human and hot desire in each of us, the DRIVE with which we can do great things for the good of all as God so desires, or by which we can do evil and so turn away from God; it’s our choice for He has given us free will. And lastly there is the Serpent on a Stick (it almost sounds almost like some ancient fast food delicacy), a Hebrew version of the caduceus, the rod of Alcepius, the Greek god of healing, seen in most medical offices today, and for the Hebrew a symbol which when looked upon restores life to the bitten.
The stage is set, the symbols defined, it’s time for lights, camera, and action! Moses is attempting to lead his people along the path of righteousness; back to God, to the promised ancestral homeland, to Eden on earth, all the while God the Father is watching the trials and tribulations from a good distance. Enter stage left, yetzer ha-ra whose venomous bit leads some people astray and they become lost, confused, crazed. God then tells Moses to erect a standard, a serpent on a pole for the people to see. Some people choose to turn their back to this desert lighthouse, they wander away and by their actions separated from God and die. Others who look on this symbol, this beacon from God are healed, are redirected toward the right path, returning to God and the life that the Father gives to his people; they have been saved. And cut. And thus the message has been delivered, turn your eyes from God, choose sin and die or look to God, see His light, follow the path of righteousness and LIVE.
And so let us return our focus on the cross, this symbol of Christianity; how does veneration of the cross of Christ relate to Moses’ serpent on a stick? Like Moses, Jesus was sent by the Father to guide His people back along the path of righteousness; Moses’ standard had been destroyed, the people were wandering like lost sheep. Yetzer ha-ra had filled their hearts with ambition and they ran about in a frenzied state as if they had been bitten by venomous vipers. Jesus called out to these sheep and some saw and heard his call and so followed Him out of the wilderness, others ignored his call and wandered farther and farther away, only to fall prey to the poison and die. Now Jesus knew there still were other lost sheep who did not hear his call; and He also knew that the sound of his voice would echo and fade into the ether with time. So God the Father told him to erect a standard that would stand for all time as a beacon to guide the lost sheep back to His flock. I sign post to the Promised Land where the flock may safely graze on the fine grasses of Eden. A sign where the fires of yetzer ha-ra are soothed with a healing balm of love so great that the ultimate gift of a life for the life of another life is given. And so Jesus does as His Father willed, and willingly was nailed to a post, was erected and hung for all to see His choice to yetzer ha-ra’s temptations: to shed his blood and give his life so that all who look to him may be healed and LIVE.
So is veneration of the cross important to the followers of Christ or is it just a remnant of some barbaric medieval church tradition? The cross is a reminder of our free will, of our choices in life, of our transgressions we have committed, of those we might commit and of the grace of God given to use when we repent and not only seek forgiveness, but give it in equal and overflowing measure. The cross is the symbol of what we need to be reminded of each and every minute of each and every day. To me the spirit of the cross is best reflected by the words of Kierkegaard “Father in Heaven! Hold not our sins up against us but hold us up against our sins so that the thought of You when it wakens in our soul, and each time it wakens, should not remind us of what we have committed but of what You did forgive, not of how we went astray but of how You did save us!” The cross, like the brass serpent on a pole IS the fundamental symbol of Christ’s mission, of God’s gift to His people, the perfect example of how we are to live, a statement that we are so loved that Christ gave his life so that we might look to him and find life everlasting! So I ask each and everyone one of you, should we as Christians, bitten by yetzer ha-ra, look to the cross as THE symbol of our faith? Verily I tell you only if you wish to LIVE!